Mount Vernon Rye is a very old rye whiskey brand that I would love to see revived. I am sure that it would be a hard case to get this brand back on the market since it has been abandoned for so long. The Mount Vernon historical site and distillery would be the logical people to bring the brand back into the market if it was revived. In any case, the brand has a rich heritage.
Mount Vernon Rye was first sold in 1870 and was registered in Mida’s Criteria to the Hannis Distilling Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were rectifiers of whiskey but they owned two distilleries – DSP 3 Maryland, in Baltimore and DSP 1 West Virginia in Martinsburg. Mount Vernon Rye was made in Baltimore. The brand quickly became very popular. In the 1880s, the Dixon Bros. of Boston, Mass., created a brand “Mt. Vernon Rye” in imitation of the popular Hannis brand. They too were rectifiers of whiskey but they did not survive in business into the 20th century. Whether the Hannis Distilling Co. eventually sued them for trademark infringement I do not know.
In the 1880s, there was no official registration of trademarks through the government. Official registration started in the 1890s. The Hannis Distilling Co. was a very large company worth over $1,000,000 in 1910 and it is unlikely that Dixon Bros. could have competed with them and the imitator, Mt. Vernon Rye brand simply died out.
The Hannis Distilling Co., in the late 19th century, was like many other companies. Whiskey companies often signed exclusive distribution agreements with other companies in major markets like New York City. Old Crow did this with the firm Paris and Allan of New York City and Hannis did this with the Cook and Bernheimer Company of New York City. This company did not survive to be listed in Mida’s Criteria Financial Index of 1910, so if you find a bottle with the Cook and Bernheimer label, you have found a rare bottle. My friend, John Lipman, has such a bottle and opened it. He declared it to be very good rye whiskey.
During Prohibition, the brand became part of AMS (American Medicinal Spirits) which became National Distillers. The brand was very popular with the criminal underground. The whiskey had a strong enough flavor that they could take one pint of Mount Vernon Rye and mix it with 5 pints of neutral spirits to create six pints of bootleg whiskey that sold well in the black market. This is important because it kept the brand alive in places where it might have been forgotten due to the limited distribution.
After Prohibition, Mount Vernon Rye became one of National Distillers’ flagship brands. The brand was heavily advertised. When looking at a National Distillers advertisement in trade magazines, Mount Vernon Rye is always included with National’s other flagship brands, Old Overholt, Old Taylor, Old Grand Dad and Old Crow. This is true all the way up to the 1980s when Jim Beam purchased National Distillers.
Jim Beam abandoned the Mount Vernon Rye brand. In the 1980s, when Beam acquired National Distillers, all whiskey sales were in the dumps. Rye whiskey sales were on the verge of dying out as a style of whiskey all together. Canadian was what most people of the time drank when they wanted “rye”. Beam made the decision that they did not need two rye whiskeys from the National Distillers’ portfolio. They kept Old Overholt and quit making Mount Vernon.
The Mount Vernon Rye label has been off the market since the 1980s. It is a brand that has a rich heritage and a great reputation for being excellent rye whiskey. John Lipman has collected many bottles of this brand and he loves every bottle he has opened. It is a brand that would be a prime candidate for revival. I would love to see the brand come back and Jim Beam would be a good company to do so. If they could work out an agreement with the Ladies of Mount Vernon where a dollar from every bottle sold would be donated to support Mount Vernon, it would become a “win/win” situation for all concerned.
Photos courtesy of John Lipman and Rosemary Miller